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The Difficult Decision the President Faces on Afghanistan

The Difficult Decision the President Faces on Afghanistan


President Obama is facing one of the most critical decisions in his Presidency—what to do in Afghanistan following the pessimistic assessment by his senior field commander in the war zone, GEN Stan McChrystal. The General in his report to the Obama national security team emphasized that the strategic situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated substantially, that there is little time left to counter Taliban success with a new approach, and that he needs at least 40,000 new troops.

McChrystal has said that NATO needs to shift away from a “counter-terrorism” strategy that focuses on killing insurgents to a “counter-insurgency” approach that emphasizes protection of the Afghan people. To accomplish this General has asked for 40,000 new troops, in addition to the 21,000 reinforcements Obama has already promised. That would bring the American commitment close to the 110,000 troops deployed by the Soviet Union.

The decision comes at a time of growing fatigue with the war on the part of Congress and the American people, as well as our European allies. Whatever course of action the President chooses, he cannot count on NATO countries sending any more forces. In fact, most of the allies will be substantially reducing or withdrawing their forces. Like Iraq, this will be a “coalition of one” doing the fighting, advising and spending.

Obama has three choices in Afghanistan. One, he can follow GEN McChrystal’s advice and provide the additional troops—and money. . Two, he could withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Three, he could settle on a compromise strategy that slightly increases force levels while shifting the American role to striking Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds by air/drone attacks augmented by Special Forces incursions.

None of the options, as well as “staying the course” currently being followed, holds much promise of success.

What are thr pros and cons of the three major options?

Option 1 is to provide GEN McChrystal with the additional 40,000 troops within the next year.

The argument in favor of this escalation option is that failing to commit to it virtually guarantees that the NATO commitment to Afghanistan will fail.

The downsides are significant. There is no assurance that even that level of commitment will stand a chance of achieving meaningful results quickly enough before the forces of Washington’s NATO allies begin to withdraw and U.S. domestic resolve erodes further. Doing more will not necessarily bring more success. There is also the question of where the additional troops will come from. Already the Army is stretched, and some would say, almost broken. Chief of Staff George Casey has promised deployed troops at least two years back home before sending them back to the war zones. Meeting McChrystal’s request would throw that promise out the window. Finally, with America’s commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan already costing more than Obama’s ambitious health care reform would require, American citizens might balk at such a prolonged, expensive effort.

Option 2 would be a quick withdrawal from Afghanistan—bring the troops home now. Advocates of this approach would favor focusing our effort on UAV strikes on AQ and Taliban camps, augmented by occasional insertions by Special Forces troops.

The advantage of this option is that it would be in concert with growing American public opinion that increasingly considers the Afghan conflict as unwinnable and not worth the sacrifices.

The obvious downside is that such a withdrawl would embolden AQ and the Taliban—the latter would most likely retake control of much of Afghanistan and threaten Pakistan’s stability. AQ would have unfettered access to more significant base areas. The “cut and run” option would permanently damage American prestige, convince allies such as Pakistan that we are an unreliable ally, and give hope to adversaries such as Iran.

Option 3, apparently favored by VP Biden and other senior nationals security officials, would send few, if any, new combat troops to Afghanistan and instead would focus on faster military training of the Afghan police and army. It would also call for continued assassinations of AQ leaders, UAV/air strikes, and enhanced support of Pakistan.

The advantages of this option are not clear, except that it represents at least a response to what is becoming an increasingly unpopular war. It would limit the exposure of our troops by focusing on a narrower anti-Al Qaeda effort.

Everyone should approach this difficult decision point with a certain degree of caution. There are no easy answers and one ought to be wary of those who advocate that there is a clear course of action we should follow—every option has its downsides, and none guarantee success.

However, President Obama is in a situation in which he will find it very hard to adopt any approach other than that provided by his chief commander in the field, and one that has apparently been endorsed by McChrystal’s boss, CENTCOM Commander GEN Dave Petraeus, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen.

While there is a good chance than no option will lead to success, and maybe all will in the end fail, for Obama—a Commander in Chief with no military experience—I doubt that there is any real alternative for him except to heed McChrystal’s request. Certainly the General has not made that situation any easier with his very public and clear warnings that not to follow his advice will “likely result in failure”, and “risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible”. GEN McChrystal has also repeated his view that what happens in Afghanistan will influence greatly what happens through Southeast Asia. In what the Washington Post has described as McChrystal’s “high profile campaign on behalf of his assessment”, the White House will be making its decision amid a widening debate on Capitol Hill and, indeed, across the country. Some observers, myself included, have been taken aback by the General’s strong advocacy of a policy position before the President has made his decision, an unusual breech of traditional civil-military protocol.

The debate will heat up in the coming days. I’d appreciate any thoughts our participants in this Forum might have regarding the options as the national security team wrestles with this impossible challenge.